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NEW DELHI: So net neutrality is back in the news again, thanks to India’s
telecom regulator Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) earlier this week issuing its recommendations on the subject while calling the internet an ‘open platform’.
But wait, before we move further, not everybody knows what net neutrality is or how it affects them. Well, worry not if you’re one of them, because this is where we tell you all there is to know about what net neutrality is and how it all started.
Let’s get to the definition first. The Oxford Dictionaries defines net neutrality as “The principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites.” What this effectively means is that when you pay an Internet service provider or ISP for a data plan, you should be able to access all content online– news, social media, videos, games etc.– at the same broadband speed which you have opted for.
Basically, the ethos of net neutrality state that ISPs should not give preference to certain content over the other. For example, sometimes ISPs may have their own content which they want to push over others providing similar content, but net neutrality bars any such practice of allowing preferential speeds to any content. No content should be throttled nor should it be given any boost by an ISP, as per the contours of net neutrality.
On Tuesday, Trai while backing net neutrality said ISPs should not engage in any discriminatory treatment of content, which simply translates to the Trai s
eeking to bar any practice where selected content is blocked, degraded, slowed down or granted preferential speeds.
Now let’s look at where the net neutrality discussion actually gained momentum in India. The debate actually sparked off about a couple of years back when social media giant Facebook launched Free Basics (earlier known as internet.org) in December 2015. Just a few months before this telecom major Bharti Airtel had launched ‘Airtel Zero’. In February 2016, Trai would ban both these projects. But what were these projects and why did Trai ban them?
Both Free Basics and Airtel Zero let users access certain apps and websites for free (without being charged for the data used). Airtel’s model was to charge companies that wanted to be part of the ‘Zero’ universe. As far as Free Basics was concerned, data was subsidised by Facebook through a partnership with a telco. So any app or service provider could apply to be part of Free Basics, provided they adhered to a set of rules set by the social networking giant. Facebook’s argument was that they were trying to make the Internet more accessible to people, especially the ones that could not afford 4G connections and were still on the 2G network. Although the service was free, it didn’t stick with free internet activists and the Trai, as it went against the very principles of net neutrality, since Facebook would inevitably be favouring some content over others.
Tuesday’s Trai papers came at a rather crucial time after nearly two years of deliberations, just after the US regulator Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that it plans to roll back the net neutrality rules that were adopted in US in 2015. This will go to a vote next month. Regulators across the world take cues from its American counterpart.
In 2014, the then US President Barack Obama had urged the FCC to take up the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.
Here in India, now the the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) will look at the Trai recommendations which also include a suggestion that a multi-stakeholder body be set up for policing compliance and violations related to net neutrality.